Stablecoin business models – I need a dollar

There has been a lot written on stablecoins in the wake of Terra’s crash. Matt Levine has been a reliable source of insight (definitely worth subscribing to his “Money Stuff” newsletter) but I am also following Izabella Kaminska via her new venture (The Blind Spot).

Maybe I am just inexplicably drawn to anything that seeks to explain crypto in Tradfi terms but I think this joint post by Izabella and Frances Coppola poses the right question by exploring the extent to which stablecoin issuers will always struggle to reconcile the safety of their peg promise to the token holders with the need to make a return. The full post is behind a paywall but this link takes you to a short extract that Izabella has made more broadly available.

Their key point is that financial security is costly so your business model needs an angle to make a return … to date the angles (or financial innovations) are mostly stuff that Tradfi has already explored. There is no free lunch.

If it’s financially secure, it’s usually not profitable

So, what was the impetus for issuers like Kwon to focus on these innovations? For the most part, it was probably the realisation that conventional stablecoins – due to their similarities with narrow banks – are exceedingly low-margin businesses. In a lot of cases, they may even be unprofitable.

This is because managing other people’s money prudently and in a way that always protects capital is actually really hard. Even if those assets are fully reserved, some sort of outperformance has to be generated to cover the administration costs. The safest way to do that is to charge fees, but this hinders competitiveness in the market since it generates a de facto negative interest rate. Another option is cross-selling some other service to the captured user base, like loan products. But this gets into bank-like activity.

The bigger temptation, therefore, at least in the first instance, is to invest the funds in your care into far riskier assets (with far greater potential upside) than those you are openly tracking.

But history shows that full-reserve or “narrow” banks eventually become fractional-reserve banks or disappear.

“Putting the Terra stablecoins debacle into Tradfi context”, Frances Coppola and Izabella Kaminska, The Blind Spot

Tony – From the Outside

The E-Cash alternative

CBDCs and stablecoins have been getting most of the attention lately. In contrast the release in late March 2022 of a draft bill titled the ECASH Act seems to have flown under the radar. The bill as I understand it is only a proposal at this stage and not something actively in the process of becoming law. It is however worth noting for a couple of reasons

  • Is is a useful reminder that an account based CBDC is not the only form of government issued digital money that might be pursued (though the account based model does seem to be the model preferred by the BIS mostly due to concerns about illegal use of anonymous forms of money)
  • Primary responsibility for E-Cash is assigned to the US Treasury, not the Central Bank (so technically it is not a CBDC per se)
  • Although I personally am not overly concerned by the current state of Know Your Customer and related anti money laundering, anti terrorist financing requirements applied to bank accounts, I respect the views of those for whom privacy is a priority or don’t have the benefit of living in the kind of economy/society that allows me to be relaxed about these questions
  • So long as the digital form of cash is subject to an equivalent set of controls on illicit activity as is applied to physical cash, then I can’t see why the digital option should be prohibited
  • Adding a digital money option that is capable of operating in an off-line environment also looks to me like a useful (albeit limited) level of redundancy and resilience in a world that increasingly relies on a 24/7 supply of power and internet connectivity for money to function
Who needs e-cash?

You can find more detail about the proposal here but for those short of time the argument put up by the Act’s proponents for why someone might want to use E-Cash is summarised as those who:

1. Lack access to traditional banking/payments services;

2. Value privacy and wish to avoid surveillance and/or data-mining;

3. Are concerned about third-party censorship and/or discrimination;

3. Lack reliable internet or digital network connectivity; and

5. Are low-income and/or cannot afford high transaction, withdrawal, and exchange fees.

www://https.ecashact.us/#whyuse

The Act’s proponents emphasise however that “… E-Cash, like physical cash, does not pay interest, and offers less third-party protections than traditional bank accounts or payments app (chargebacks, loss and fraud-prevention, etc).” The basic idea is that this is a complement to the existing forms of money (physical and digital) and it is not envisaged that most people will seek to hold large amounts in the form of E-Cash.

What exactly does the ECASH Act proposes?

1. Directs the Secretary of the Treasury to develop and introduce a form of retail digital dollar called “e-cash,” which replicates the offline-capable, peer-to-peer, privacy-respecting, zero transaction-fee, and payable-to-bearer features of physical cash, and to coordinate their efforts with other agencies, including the Federal Reserve through an intergovernmental Digital Dollar Council led by the Treasury Secretary;

2. Establishes an Electronic Currency Innovation Program within the U.S. Treasury to test and evaluate different forms of secure hardware-based e-cash devices that do not require internet access, third-party validation, or settlement on or via a common ledger, with a focus on widely available, interoperable architectures such as stored-value cards and cell phones;

3. Establishes an independent Monetary Privacy Board to oversee and monitor the federal government’s efforts to preserve monetary privacy and protect civil liberties in the development of digital dollar technologies and services, and directs the Treasury Secretary to, wherever possible, promote and prioritise open-source licensed software and hardware, and to make all technical information available for public review and comment; and

4. Establishes a special-purpose, ring-fenced Treasury overdraft account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to cover any and all government expenses related to the development and piloting of E-Cash, and directs the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System to take appropriate liquidity-support measures to ensure that the introduction of e-cash does not reduce the ability of banks, credit unions, or community development financial institutions to extend credit and other financial services to underserved populations, as prescribed under the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and related laws.

www:https://ecashact.us/#ecashact

Summing up

I have been a professed sceptic on the need for a retail CBDC in advanced economies with well functioning fast payment systems (see here and here) but this proposal is intriguing and one that I will watch with interest.

Tony – From the Outside

Central bank digital currencies: a new tool in the financial inclusion toolkit?

The BIS recently published a paper summarising what had been learned from a series of interviews with nine central banks exploring how these institutions were thinking about the potential of a CBDC to support the pursuit of “financial inclusion” objectives explicit or implicit in their mandates.

A lot of what the paper documents and discusses will be pretty familiar to anyone who has been following the BIS and individual central banks on this topic but I think the following observations offered by the paper about the best way to pursue financial inclusion is worth noting

It needs to be noted that many of these features [i.e. the benefits of a CBDC] can, in isolation, be offered by other payment innovations, and many gaps could be addressed through regulation and sound oversight arrangements. Combining different payment innovations – such as open application programming interfaces (APIs), fast payment services, contactless chips and QR codes – could achieve many of the same goals. This is particularly true when accompanied by robust regulatory and oversight arrangements that public authorities can use to catalyse private sector players, enforce sound governance arrangements and foster required coordination and collaboration. Adoption of relevant technologies for supervisory and regulatory compliance could also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of regulators and supervisors. What is truly different about CBDC is that it is a direct claim on the central bank. It is an open question for central banks whether CBDCs or other policy interventions are the best fit for their jurisdiction. Yet if a CBDC is to be issued (for financial inclusion or other motives), interviews with central banks clearly point to the importance of inclusive design elements to successfully promote inclusive outcomes. We discuss these elements in the next subsection.

Page 13, paragraph 16

There is a narrative that sees CBDC adoption as inevitable based in part on the fact that so many central banks are looking at the question. In contrast, the BIS paper clearly states that a CBDC is not a “panacea” and that many of the outcomes a CBDC might deliver could equally be delivered by other payment innovations such as “open application programming interfaces (APIs) , fast payment services, contactless chips and QR codes”

It is also worth noting that, of the nine central banks interviewed, eight were emerging market and developing economies and only one (Bank of Canada) an advanced economy. The results should therefore be interpreted with that bias in mind.

Summing up, my take is that

  • the business case for a retail CBDC seems to have the most weight in the emerging market and developing economies with relatively poorly developed financial infrastructure
  • the business case for a retail CBDC in an advanced economy is less obvious
  • other initiatives such as central bank sponsorship of fast payment systems might be a better use of central bank resources
  • not explicitly referenced in the paper, but the recent experience with the roll out of fast payment systems in Brazil and India offer interesting case studies
  • the central bank focus on CBDCs seems to continue to be heavily weighted toward account based systems
  • token based CBDCs are mentioned in passing but do not seem to be high on the list of priorities

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

SWIFT …

… has been in the news lately.

This link takes you to a blog I follow written by Patrick McKenzie that offers a payment expert’s perspective on what SWIFT is, together with Patrick’s personal view on what the sanctions are intended to achieve.

This short extract covers Patrick’s assessment of the objective of the sanctions

The intent of this policy has been described variously in various places. In my personal opinion, I think the best articulation of the strategy is “We are attempting to convey enormous displeasure while sanctioning some banks which are believed to be close to politically exposed Russians, while not making it impossible for Russian firms generally to transact internationally nor sparking a humanitarian crisis either inside or outside of Russia.”

One of the key insights is that SWIFT manages the messaging that accompanies international payments and facilities their processing, not the transfers of money per se. The sanctions do not make it impossible to transact with Russia, they mostly make it operationally very difficult and not really worth the effort, especially at scale. Especially if you are a regulated bank who cares about your long term relationship with your regulator.

Another nuance that does not always come through in the newspaper reporting of the sanctions is the extent to which the compliance functions in banks are under pressure to interpret and anticipate the intent of the regulatory sanctions

Many commentators confuse the actual effects of severing particular banks from SWIFT with what they perceive as the policy goal motivating it. More important than either is, in my opinion, what it communicates about commander’s intent to the policy arms who are responsible for enforcing it.

Specifically, it communicates that Something Has Changed and that Russian institutional money, specifically “oligarch” money, is now tainted, and not in the benignly ignored fashion it has been for most of the last few decades.

Where there is some doubt or ambiguity, banks are likely to err on the side of caution.

Patrick’s post is worth reading if you are interested in this particular aspect of SWIFT and his blog worth following if you are interested in payments more generally.

Tony – From the Outside

The elasticity of credit

One of the arguments for buying Bitcoin is that, in contrast to fiat currencies that are at mercy of the Central Bank money printer, its value is underpinned by the fixed and immutable supply of coins built into the code. Some cryptocurrencies take this a step further by engineering a systematic burning of their coin.

I worry about inflation as much as the next person, perhaps more so since I am old enough to have actually lived in an inflationary time. I think a fixed or shrinking supply is great for an asset class but it is less obvious that it is a desirable feature of a money system.

Crypto true believers have probably stopped reading at this point but to understand why a fixed supply might be problematic I can recommend a short speech by Claudio Borio. The speech dates back to 2018 but I think it continues to offer a useful perspective on the value of an elastic money supply alongside broader comments about the nature of money and its role in the economy.

Borio was at the time the Head of the BIS Monetary and Economic Department but the views expressed were his personal perspective covering points that he believed to be well known and generally accepted, alongside others more speculative and controversial.

I did a post back in March 2019 that offers an overview of the speech but recently encountered a post by J.W. Mason which reminded me how useful and insightful it was.

The specific insight I want to focus on here is the extent to which a well functioning monetary system relies on the capacity of credit extended in the system to expand and contract in response to both short term settlement demands and the longer term demands driven by economic growth.

One of the major challenges with the insight Borio offers is that most of us find the idea that money is really just a highly developed form of debt to be deeply unsatisfying if not outright scary. Borio explicitly highlights “the risk of overestimating the distinction between credit (debt) and money” arguing that “…we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”

Put differently, we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt. In the case of bank deposits, trust is supported by central bank liquidity, including as lender of last resort, by the regulatory and supervisory framework and varieties of deposit insurance; in that of central bank reserves and cash, by the sovereign’s power to tax; and in both cases, by legal arrangements, way beyond legal tender laws, and enshrined in market practice.

Borio: Page 9

I did a post here that explains in more detail an Australian perspective on the process by which unsecured loans to highly leveraged companies (aka “bank deposits”) are transformed into (mostly) risk free assets that represent the bulk of what we use as money.

Borio outlines how the central banks’ elastic supply of the means of payment is essential to ensure that (i) transactions are settled in the interbank market and (ii) the interest rate is controlled …

“To smooth out interbank settlement, the provision of central bank credit is key. The need for an elastic supply to settle transactions is most visible in the huge amounts of intraday credit central banks supply to support real-time gross settlement systems – a key way of managing risks in those systems (Borio (1995)).”

Borio: Page 5

… but also recognises the problem with too much elasticity

While the elasticity of money creation oils the wheels of the payment system on a day to day basis, it can be problematic over long run scenarios where too much elasticity can lead to financial instability. Some degree of elasticity is important to keep the wheels of the economy turning but too much can be a problem because the marginal credit growth starts to be used for less productive or outright speculative investment.

This is a big topic which means there is a risk that I am missing something. That said, the value of an elastic supply of credit looks to me like a key insight to understanding how a well functioning monetary system should be designed.

The speech covers a lot more ground than this and is well worth reading together with the post by J.W. Mason I referenced above which steps through the insights. Don’t just take my word for it, Mason introduces his assessment with the statement that he was “…not sure when I last saw such a high density of insight-per-word in a discussion of money and finance, let alone in a speech by a central banker”.

Tony – From the Outside

SWIFT gpi data indicate drivers of fast cross-border payments

One of the use cases for cryptocurrency and\or stablecoins is that it offers cheaper and faster alternatives to the conventional payment rails. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen but I have long believed cross country payments is one of the areas where the banking system really does need to lift its game.

Against that context, this research study released by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) suggests that TradFi banking is making some improvements.

The study lists three key takeaways …

“- The speed of cross-border payments on SWIFT global payment innovation (gpi) is generally high with a median processing time of less than two hours. However, payment speeds vary markedly across end-to-end payment routes from a median of less than five minutes on the fastest routes to more than two days on several of the slowest routes.
– Prolonged processing times are largely driven by time spent at the beneficiary bank from when it receives the payment instruction until it credits the end customer’s account. Longer processing times tend to occur in low and lower-middle income countries, which can be partly attributed to capital controls and related compliance processes, weak competition as measured by the number of banks as well as limited operating hours of and the use of batch processing by beneficiary banks.
– Cross-border payments on SWIFT involve, on average, just over one intermediary between the originator and beneficiary banks. Each additional intermediary prolongs payment time to a limited extent, while the size of time zone differences between banks has no discernible effect on speed.”

If I am reading it correctly, the study does not capture any delays the initiating bank may introduce before it processes a payment instruction. With that caveat, it is worth noting that TradFi is not standing still – competition can be a beautiful thing.

Also worth noting the extent to which domestic payment systems are improving though not necessarily in the USA.

Tony – From the Outside

The need for a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

JP Koning offers a Canadian perspective on the need for a CBDC that identifies two issues with the idea and concludes it is not a priority.

His argument rests on two planks. Firstly he argues that the existing payment infrastructure in Canada is pretty good so the obvious question is whether the CBDC is really worth the required investment of public resources. Secondly he highlights the operational and governance problems associated with payments that lie outside a central bank’s core area of competence.

His post also links to an article by David Andolfatto that arrives at similar conclusions. David however adds the qualification that a wholesale CBDC might be worth pursuing.

Neither post introduces anything radically new into the discussion of CBDC so far as I can tell but they are worth reading to get a Canadian perspective. The key points the articles reinforced for me where:

  1. That the need for financial innovations like a CBDC (or indeed payment stablecoins) depends a lot on how good the existing payment rails are. Some countries have pretty good systems but others (which surprisingly seems to include America) are not keeping up with best practice.
  2. Cross currency payments is an area that appears ripe for disruption and a wholesale CBDC might have a role to play in this process.

Tony – From the Outside

The problem with regulating stablecoin issuers like banks

One of my recent posts discussed the Report on Stablecoins published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). While I fully supported the principle that similar types of economic activities should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation in order to avoid regulatory arbitrage, I also wrote that it was not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer for payment stablecoin issuance.

This speech by Governor Waller of the Fed neatly expresses one of the key problems with the recommendation that stablecoin issuance be restricted to depositary institutions (aka private banks). To be honest I was actually quite surprised the PWG arrived at this recommendation given the obvious implication that it would benefit the bank incumbents and impede innovation in the ways in which US consumers can access money payment services

“However, I disagree with the notion that stablecoin issuance can or should only be conducted by banks, simply because of the nature of the liability. I understand the attraction of forcing a new product into an old, familiar structure. But that approach and mindset would eliminate a key benefit of a stablecoin arrangement—that it serves as a viable competitor to banking organizations in their role as payment providers. The Federal Reserve and the Congress have long recognized the value in a vibrant, diverse payment system, which benefits from private-sector innovation. That innovation can come from outside the banking sector, and we should not be surprised when it crops up in a commercial context, particularly in Silicon Valley. When it does, we should give those innovations the chance to compete with other systems and providers—including banks—on a clear and level playing field”

“Reflections on stablecoins and Payments Innovations”, Governor Christopher J Waller, 17 November 2021

The future of payment stablecoins is, I believe, a regulated one but I suspect that the specific path of regulation proposed by the PWG Report recommendations will (and should) face a lot of pushback given its implications for competition and innovation in the financial payment rails that support economic activity.

I don’t agree with everything that Governor Waller argues in his speech. I am less convinced than he, for example, that anti trust regulation as it stands offers sufficient protection against big tech companies operating in this space using customer data in ways that are not fully aligned with the customers’ interests. That said, his core argument that preserving the capacity for competition and financial innovation in order to keep the incumbents honest and responsive to customer interests is fundamental to the long term health of the financial system rings very true to me.

For anyone interested in the question of why the United States appears to be lagging other countries in developing its payments infrastructure, I can recommend a paper by Catalini and Lilley (2021) that I linked to in this post. This post by JP Koning discussing what other countries (including Australia) have achieved with fast payment system initiatives also gives a useful sense of what is being done to enhance the existing infrastructure when the system is open to change.

Tony – From the Outside

The future of stablecoin issuance appears to lie in becoming more like a bank

Well to be precise, the future of “payment stablecoins” seems to lie in some form of bank like regulation. That is one of the main conclusions to be drawn from reading the “Report on Stablecoins” published by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG).

One of the keys to reading this report is to recognise that its recommendation are focussed solely on “payment stablecoins” which it defines as “… those stablecoins that are designed to maintain a stable value relative to a fiat currency and, therefore, have the potential to be used as a widespread means of payment.”

Some of the critiques I have seen from the crypto community argue that the report’s recommendations fail to appreciate the way in which stablecoin arrangements are designed to be self policing and cite the fact that the arrangements have to date withstood significant episodes of volatility without holders losing faith. Market discipline, they argue, makes regulation redundant and an impediment to experimentation and innovation.

The regulation kills innovation argument is a good one but what I think it misses is that the evidence in support of a market discipline solution is drawn from the existing uses and users of stablecoins which are for the most part confined to engaged and relatively knowledgeable participants. This group of financial pioneers have made a conscious decision to step outside the boundaries of the regulated financial system (with the protections that it offers) and can take the outcomes (positive and negative) without having systemic prudential impacts.

The PWG Report looks past the existing applications to a world in which stablecoins represent a material alternative to the existing bank based payment system. In this future state of the world, world stablecoins are being used by ordinary people and the question then becomes why this type of money is any different to private bank created money once it becomes widely accepted and the financial system starts to depend on it to facilitate economic activity.

The guiding principle is (not surprisingly) that similar types of economic activity should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation. Regulatory arbitrage rarely (if ever) ends up well. This is a sound basis for approaching the stablecoin question but it is not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer. To understand why, I recommend you read this briefing note published by Davis Polk (a US law firm), in particular the section titled “A puzzling omission” which explores the question why the Report appears to prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

4. A puzzling omission.

By recommending that Congress require all stablecoin issuers to be IDIs, the Report would effectively require all stablecoin issuers to engage in fractional reserve banking and effectively prohibit them from being structured as 100% reserve banks (i.e., narrow banks9) that limit their activities to the issuance of stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.10

The reason is that IDIs are subject to minimum leverage capital ratios that were calibrated for banks that engage in fractional reserve banking and invest the vast portion of the funds they raise through deposit-taking in commercial loans or other illiquid assets that are riskier but generate higher returns than cash or cash equivalents. Minimum leverage ratios treat cash and cash equivalents as if they had the same risk and return profile as commercial loans, commercial paper and long-term corporate debt, even though they do not. Unless Congress recalibrated the minimum leverage capital ratios to reflect the lower risk and return profile of IDIs that limit their assets to cash and cash equivalents, the minimum leverage capital ratios would make the 100% reserve model for stablecoin issuance uneconomic and therefore effectively prohibited.11 It is puzzling why the PWG, FDIC and OCC would recommend a regulatory framework that would effectively require stablecoin issuers to invest in riskier assets and rely on FDIC insurance rather than permitting stablecoins backed by a 100% cash and cash equivalent reserve.

This omission is puzzling for another reason. There has long been a debate whether deposit insurance schemes or a regime that required demand deposits to be 100% backed by cash or cash equivalents would be more effective in preventing runs or contagion. Indeed, the Roosevelt Administration, Senator Carter Glass, a number of economists and most well-capitalized banks were initially opposed to the proposal to create a federal deposit insurance scheme in 1933.12 Among the arguments against deposit insurance are that the benefits of deposit insurance in the form of reduced run and contagion risk are outweighed by the adverse effects in the form of reduced market discipline resulting from the reduced incentive of depositors to monitor the financial health of their banks. This reduced monitoring gives weaker banks more room to engage in risky activities the costs of which are borne by the stronger and more responsible banks in the form of excessive deposit insurance premiums or by taxpayers in the form of government bailouts.

In a competing proposal that has come to be known as the Chicago Plan, a group of economists led by economists at the University of Chicago argued in favor of a legal regime that required all demand deposits to be 100% backed by a reserve of cash or cash equivalents.13 Proponents of the Chicago Plan argued that it would be more effective in stemming runs and contagion than the proposed federal deposit insurance scheme, without undermining market discipline or creating moral hazard. The Chicago Plan would have been analogous to the original National Bank Act that required all paper currency issued by national banks to be fully backed 100% by U.S. Treasury securities. The Chicago Plan was ultimately rejected in favor of the federal deposit insurance scheme that was enacted in 1933 not because it would have been less effective than deposit insurance in stemming runs and contagion, but because it was viewed as too radical. Policymakers feared that by prohibiting banks from using deposits to fund commercial loans and invest in other debt instruments, the Chicago Plan would have resulted in a further contraction in the already severely contracted supply of credit that was fueling the great contraction in economic output that later became known as the Great Depression.

It is understandable why the Report does not recommend prohibiting IDIs from issuing, transferring or buying and selling stablecoins that represent insured deposit liabilities. What is puzzling in light of this history, however, is why the Report would effectively prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve (i.e., narrow) banks that limit their activities to the issuance, transfer and buying and selling stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.

“U.S. regulators speak on stableman and crypto regulation” Davis Polk Client Update, 12 November 2021

I am open to the possibility that the conventional bank regulation solution was unintended and that a narrow bank option might still be on the table. In that regard, I note that Circle has been pursuing the 100% reserve bank option for some time already so it would have been reasonable to expect that the PWG Report to discuss why this was not an option if they were ruling it out. The value of the Davis Polk note is that it neatly explains why being required to operate under bank regulation (the Leverage Ratio in particular) will be problematic for the stablecoin business model. This will be especially useful for those in the stablecoin community who may believe that fractional reserve banking is a free option to increase the riskiness of the assets that back the stablecoin liabilities.

But, as always, I may be missing something…

Tony – From the Outside